The burkini fiasco, if it has had any positive effects, should have opened some eyes to how silly human beings can behave when we become enmeshed in a fabricated social panic. The issue, for those who have not seen the image of French police standing over a woman at a beach, requiring her to remove articles of clothing, is the idea that Muslim women in modest beach wear are a threat to Western civilization.
About 30 coastal towns in France banned the “burkini,” swimwear that generally covers all but a woman’s face, hands and feet. Even after a French court ruled the ban illegal, most of the mayors insisted they would continue enforcing the dress code.
The irony is jarring. Ostensibly based on the idea that Islam or Islamism – the motivation and the perceived threat are blurry – oppresses women by forcing them into extensive body-covering clothing, police in a democratic Western country force a woman to disrobe. (It was inevitable, also, that photos would soon go viral depicting nuns frolicking in the ocean in full Christian religious regalia, unmolested by authorities.)
France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called the burkini a “provocation” and “an expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women,” an “archaic vision” in which women are “immodest, impure and that they should be totally covered. That is not compatible with the values of France and the Republic.”
We can leave to the French what is compatible with the values of France and the Republic, yet surely a nation founded on the pillars of liberty and equality must find something amiss when its police devote their time and resources to enforcing swimwear rules.
France is singular among European countries for its stated commitment to laïcité, the prohibition against religious involvement in government affairs in service of a secular ideal. Similar issues have been addressed in Quebec, where overtly religious Christian symbols, including the crucifix, were deemed part of the province’s cultural heritage and thereby conveniently exempted from the ban on religious imagery. But, in France, as elsewhere in Europe, more is at play than ideas of secularism. In fact, the imperfect heritage of secularism is being manipulated as an excuse to target a particular group.
On the one hand, let us not pretend that there are not legitimate concerns and issues raised by the increasing population of Muslims in Europe. Among this population, both among immigrants and those born in Europe, are a small number who have become radicalized and are a genuine threat to society. A larger number holds ideas that challenge the European consensus on the role of women in society, pluralism and the rights of people to live free from religious coercion. These are legitimate concerns that require addressing through long-range integration strategies and societal accommodation between traditions – as does the rise in Europe of nationalism, xenophobia and racism.
But the burkini is, at best, a side issue; a symptom of a few things, none of them healthy. Regardless, the “solution” to any social coercion around women’s clothing is certainly not legal proscription, at least it should not be in a Western democracy. Burkini-banning has more in common with religious extremism – modesty “police” exist in various communities around the world – than the Western freedoms the burkini-bashers claim to defend.